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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 17, 2017

Companies, universities with early reading programs benefit from Iowa education spending

Feb 01, 2017


Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Of the five most expensive contracts entered into by Iowa’s state education department during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, three were for programs that identify and help young, struggling readers.

The department’s spending on early reader programs was revealed during a cursory examination of education spending contracts at the state and local level.

The state in recent years has placed an emphasis on early literacy, and that emphasis can be seen in the education department’s spending.

In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the Iowa Department of Education contracted with Minnesota-based Technology and Information Educational Services for $3.5 million for software designed to help the department collect and analyze data on young readers. That was the state’s most expensive contract during the fiscal year.

The department contracted with the University of Iowa for $1.2 million for the school’s Reading Research Center, which studies and determines strategies for assisting struggling young readers.

The department also contracted with Minnesota-based FastBridge Learning for $743,000 for a program that monitors reading proficiency and progress in kindergarten through Grade 6.

Research shows early reading proficiency is an indicator of future educational success.

The Iowa education department has taken that research to heart, pouring millions of dollars into programs designed to help ensure more young students are reading at sufficient levels. The aforementioned programs totaled more than $5 million in 2015-2016.

“The importance of early literacy couldn’t be overstated,” said Ryan Wise, director of the state education department. “Ensuring that all Iowa students are reading proficiently by the end of third-grade is critical to ensuring that they have the skills that they need to access more rigorous coursework and opportunities as they progress through school and beyond school.

“We know that the easiest way to prevent reading problems is to catch them before they start,” he added. “That’s why our focus has been on this screening and early intervention, to ensure that we identify these problems early on, and that teachers in schools are equipped to address these challenges.”

The University of Iowa also received another $634,000 to develop programs to help the department track and report student progress.

The state started a focus on early reading with a new law in 2012, which the department has spent the past five years implementing. While the programs have not yielded dramatic improvement on a statewide level, Wise said there is evidence of improvement at the local level.

“It depends on how you look at the challenge. From a statewide, aggregate test score lens, we haven’t seen growth yet in terms of our statewide proficiency rates,” Wise said, noting 1 in 4 young Iowa students are not proficient in reading by the end of third-grade. “That number maybe has shifted a percentage point or two over time, but we haven’t moved the needle on that number statewide yet.”

“We’re seeing great progress within the school year. We haven’t yet seen the progress for the state as a whole,” Wise added. “But we do believe we’re putting the right foundational components in place.”

Other big-money state education contracts included:

$952,000 to New York-based NYC Leadership Academy for coaching administrators and other leaders to implement the state’s teacher leadership program, which uses veteran teachers to mentor younger and new teachers.

$850,000 to the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids to be used by all nine of the state’s AEAs to help districts implement the Iowa Core.

Education is a big business in the United States: total spending by public schools surpassed $620 billion in 2012-2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The biggest spending at the local level in the 2015-2016 fiscal year most often went to local vendors for construction projects, transportation and food services, according to a cursory review of the top contracts at a handful of big school districts across the state.

The Davenport school district, for example, had a busy construction schedule in 2015 and 2016, with six contracts worth more than $1,000,000 going toward construction projects.

But the district’s most expensive contract, for $6.2 million, went for transportation services, to Illinois-based Durham School Services.

Feeding students can be an expensive proposition. Each of the five large school districts examined for this story had food services contracts among its top 10 most expensive for the fiscal year.

One regional food service company appears to be a favorite — and financial beneficiary — of Iowa schools. Reinhart Foodservice, based in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, Illinois, in 2015-2016 had contracts with three of the districts surveyed for this story; those contracts were worth a combined $5.5 million.

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